Three years after Justice Sandra Day O'Connor left the Supreme Court, the impact of having only one woman on the nation's highest bench has become particularly clear to that woman — Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Her status as the court's lone woman was especially poignant during a recent case involving a 13-year-old girl who had been strip-searched by Arizona school officials looking for drugs. During oral arguments, some other justices minimized the girl's lasting humiliation, but Ginsburg stood out in her concern for the teenager.
"They have never been a 13-year-old girl," she told USA TODAY later when asked about her colleagues' comments during the arguments. "It's a very sensitive age for a girl. I didn't think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood."
As Justice David Souter prepares to retire at the end of the term this summer, the significance of Ginsburg's position as the nine-member court's only woman has become a point of broad discussion. President Obama is under pressure from groups such as the National Women's Law Center to nominate another woman.
In interviews with USA TODAY before Souter's retirement announcement Friday, Ginsburg said the court needs another woman. "Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. I don't say (the split) should be 50-50," Ginsburg said. "It could be 60% men, 40% women, or the other way around. It shouldn't be that women are the exception."
Since O'Connor's departure in 2006, oral arguments and the justices' behind-the-scenes discussions on how disputes should be resolved have had a different tone. In the strip-search case and others this term, Ginsburg has revealed a woman's point of view that was strikingly at odds with those of many of her colleagues.
Ginsburg dominated oral arguments in an important case involving alleged discrimination related to pregnancy leaves. She was openly frustrated that some of her male colleagues, in her view, might not have understood the discrimination women face on the job.
She said the arguments in that dispute echoed those of a 2007 case involving Lilly Ledbetter, a 19-year worker at a Goodyear tire factory in Alabama who alleged that her pay dropped over time compared with men who had equal or less seniority. In that case, the court — with Ginsburg vigorously dissenting — narrowly ruled that women could not sue for pay inequities resulting from sex discrimination that had occurred years earlier.
Oral arguments in the pregnancy case were "just, for me, Ledbetter repeated," Ginsburg told USA TODAY, adding that her colleagues showed "a certain lack of understanding" of the bias a woman can face on the job.
In the justices' private conferences, during which they preliminarily discuss how they will vote on a dispute, Ginsburg said she feels the absence of O'Connor, who was the first woman on the court. O'Connor retired to care for her husband, John, who has Alzheimer's.
"At the conference, she spoke long before I did," Ginsburg said, referring to the court's pattern of seniority for discussion of a case. Noting O'Connor's forceful presence, Ginsburg added, "She is not an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand person."